What is in this article?:
- MUFSO 2012: Chef talks pig heads, sustainability and empire building
- Sawyer's latest projects, inspirations
Chef Jonathon Sawyer's Cleveland, Ohio, restaurants include Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat and Sawyer’s Street Frites.
Restaurant Hospitality named Sawyer a Rising Star in 2008.
Sawyer's latest projects, inspirations
Noodlecat, Sawyer’s next project, was inspired by affordable ramen houses he had patronized while working in New York. He spent three weeks in Japan sampling more than 60 bowls of noodles before returning to dream up his menu, which he refers to as a Japanese-American mash-up. The experience was eye-opening.
“The reverence for ingredients there is pretty amazing,” he recalled. The visit also convinced him to outsource noodle making to a local artisan pasta maker and concern himself with the embellishments. “I could try my whole life to make perfect buckwheat noodles, and I would never do it. So we do the best with what we have.”
True to his no-product-wasted rule, one of Noodlecat’s mainstays evolved from simple chicken bones.
“I love properly fried chicken, and I don’t really throw anything away. So I decided to make chicken stock from the bones, and the flavor from that fried chicken somehow really stayed in the broth,” he recalled. The end product, “Roscoe's” Fried Chicken & Ramen, a concoction of fried chicken, butter, hot sauce, maple syrup, greens and fried chicken broth, pays homage to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, a Southern California institution.
The Noodlecat kiosk at the market, which features an abbreviated menu, has also provided a perfect spot for Sawyer’s crew to sell house-made ketchup, soy sauce, pickles and vinegar. Sawyer said he sometimes wishes he had opened the stand before the restaurant. “It’s much easier to manage 65 square feet than 2,000 square feet,” he reasoned.
To research his latest restaurant, Trentino, he and his chef each will have spent about 40 days scouring that region of Italy for ideas. He chose to focus on that region because “when we develop concepts we don’t want it to be a regurgitation of something we’ve done elsewhere, and we want it to represent our area,” he explained. Trentino, in Northern Italy, sits at about the same latitude as Northern Ohio.
Unlike many prominent chefs, Sawyer doesn’t lay down the law and expect his cooks to obey. He encourages collaboration and creativity among trusted staffers, he’s a strong believer in giving chefs a stake in the business and he rewards midlevel employees with bonuses. When the restaurants do well, they all stand to win.
Sawyer said “with the right help and the right partners,” he could definitely see duplicating some of these concepts in other markets. A decade from now, he’d still like to be expanding his company and thinking of new ideas, “but I don’t want to be expediting at the Greenhouse Tavern on a Saturday night.”
Find more 2012 coverage online at Restaurant Hospitality's sister publications, Nation's Restaurant News and Food Management.